10 Secret, Stunning Italian Destinations That Will Make You Skip the Big Cities

Pizzo

Most Italian tourist itineraries cover the cities of Venice, Florence, Rome, and maybe Naples.

There is certainly much to see in these places, making them the first stop for first-time Italian tourists.

In Florence, for example, summertime tourists vastly outnumber the local residents.

Florence

But if you look beyond the big cities, there are locations off the beaten path and not covered by most tourist guidebooks. There, you can enjoy a quieter, uncrowded, and much more authentic Italy.

You need to know about these 10 secret destinations, all along the Tyrrhenian (western) coast of Southern Italy:

1.  Aieta

Aieta

Aieta is nestled in the mountains 1,600 ft. above the sea. It is slightly inland from the coast and is only marked by a single sign along the main SS18 highway. The name of the village comes from “aetos“, the Greek name for eagle.

The territory of Aieta has been inhabited since prehistoric times, as proven by artifacts that have been uncovered there dating from the Paleolithic and Neolithic ages.

The village is dominated by the Palazzo Rinascimentale, considered to be the most beautiful example of Renaissance architecture surviving in Calabria. It has recently been converted into an art gallery and museum.

Aieta

2.  Belvedere Marittimo

Castello Aragonese di Belvedere Marittimo

Belvedere Marittimo is a beautiful village that’s separated into two distinct areas: the modern town which borders the beach and marina, and the Centro Storico (historical center).   The village features a Norman Castle originally built around 1000 AD and restored by King Ferdinand of Aragon in 1490.

Belvedere is a photographer’s dream with stunning architecture and sweeping views of the crystal-blue Mediterranean.

Belvedere Maritimo

3.  Diamante

Diamante

Diamante is known as the “City of Murals” and features over 150 works of art by artists from all over the world. These decorate the walls of the buildings in Diamate’s Centro Storico.

Diamante also features a wide promenade next to the sea, bordered with shops and restaurants.

Diamante is perhaps most famous for its annual Festa del Peperoncino, held early in September, celebrating the local hot chili pepper which is the foundation of Calabrian cuisine.

Diamante Peperoncino Festival

4.  Maiera

Maiera

Maiera is perched high atop a narrow ridge overlooking the sea. It was first established around 500 BC. The town derives its name from antiquated Spanish, meaning mountain.

The village has a very reverent and reserved feel to it as you walk along its narrow streets and paths.

Like in Diamante, there are many murals on the town’s walls, and ceramic art can be seen in windows along the narrow paths in the town.

Maiera

5.  Maratea

Beach Near Maratea

Maratea comprises two distinct areas:  a scenic harbor and a medieval village farther inland.

South of Maratea is a coastal road just as scenic as the famous Amalfi Coast road. This road dips and winds past cliffs and pocket-size beaches along the Golfo di Policastro.

Overlooking the entire region is the Cristo Redentore, or Christ the Redeemer, a 69-ft. high statue set on top of Monte San Biago, 2,100 ft. high. From there the views of the majestic Tyrhenhian coast stretch out to eternity.

Cristo Redentore, Maratea

6.  Orsomarso

Orsomarso

Orsomarso is locally known as “the soul of the mountains” and the village is indeed folded into the jutting landscape.

The Church of San Giovanni contains paintings from the 16th-century and houses hundreds of frescoes constructed by the ancient local master, Colimodio.

Towering above the oldest part of the town is the clock tower built into a cliff.

Orsomarso

7.  Pizzo

Pizzo

Pizzo has several main attractions: the Chiesetta di Piedigrotta, a cave-chapel on the shore, the Castello Murat, and the renowned Tartufo di Pizzo, a chocolate truffle ice cream.

Close to the town’s main Piazza (the Piazza della Republica) lies the Castello Murat. It was built in the fifteenth century. Napoleon’s brother-in-law, Joachim Murat, who was King of Naples for a short time, was imprisoned there and later executed.

The castle is open to the public, and also hosts special events.

Pizzo is most famous for itsTartufo di Pizzo . This is a delicious chocolate and hazelnut ice cream treat coated in cocoa powder and sugar, with a core of chocolate fudge sauce.

Its popularity spreads beyond Pizzo and you’ll find it on dessert menus all over Southern Italy. The cafes around the main square in Pizzo all serve this specialty, and delicious variations of it.

Tartuffo

8.  Santa Domenica Talao

Santa Domenica Talao

The hilltop village of Santa Domenica Talao was established in 1640 when the land originally belonged to Hector Maria Spinelli, Prince of Scalea.

Today, the character of the original town is still evident in the buildings of the village, and reflected in the relaxed and friendly lifestyle of its residents.

Santa Domenica Talao is only 4 mi. away from the beach at Scalea, and also borders the Pollino National Park, the largest natural park in Italy.

The village overlooks the Lao River valley, which is rich in history and offers hiking adventures as well as white-water rafting.

On a clear day you can also see Stromboli (80 mi. away), a volcano that’s been continuously erupting for the last 10,000 years.

Santa Domenica Talao

9.  Scalea

Scalea

Scalea is a major beach resort community just down the hill from Santa Domenica Talao. There are basically two towns: the Centro Storico, with buildings dating back to the 1600’s, and a shopping area surrounded by condominiums and apartments mostly occupied by tourists during the summer.

The shopping area is a charming area pedonale or walking area where no cars are allowed.  Some of the best restaurants and pastry shops are located there.

The area pedonale is a wonderful place for a leisurely lunch followed by a stroll and perhaps even a gelato.

There are several restaurants in the Centro Storico that serve authentic Calabrian cuisine during the summer.

Scalea_at_night

10.  Tortora

Tortora

Tortora (from the Latin turtur-uris, or turtle-dove), is the north-westernmost village in Calabria. The area has been occupied since prehistoric times.

Excavations that took place at the foot of the limestone cliffs of Torre Nave (an ancient watchtower) revealed stone tools dating back to 35,000 years ago.

Since then the area has been occupied by the Enotri (the early people of Italy)  up through the 6th century BC, as well as by the Romans, Lombards, and Burbons thereafter.

The village is divided into three sections: The Marina, the Centro Storico, and small mountain towns in the area.

The area hosts many summertime activities including concerts and theatrical performances.

The Museum of Blanda, in the Centro Storico, houses a large collection of local Etruscan artifacts.

Tortora

Now that you know the best kept Italian secrets, you can spend your vacation time exploring, taking amazing photos, and eating magnificent food instead of fighting the crowds.

A gorgeous train ride south from Rome is all it takes to get here.

Contact us! We will arrange your trip.

Take Rome Off Your Bucket List and Put It On Your To Do List

Italian Roman super savvy travelers
Via Veneto, Rome, Italy
Via Veneto, Rome, Italy

Why is Bella Roma so internationally loved?

Rome is wild, loud, beautiful, and always unpredictable. There is honestly so much to love about Rome that I am doing her a disservice listing only 5 things to be crazy about.

Go to Rome armed with these 5 things and make up your own list of favorites. 

Michelangelo's Pieta, Rome, Italy
Michelangelo’s Pieta, St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome, Italy

1) The Vatican Art Museums

Rome is a city filled to the eyeballs with art. It is everywhere. 

A trip to the Vatican Art Museums is a must when visiting Rome because it is the greatest collection of fine art in existence. Much of it is Renaissance Art.

The Vatican Museums were originated by Pope Julius II in 1506.

At that time, Michelangelo was working at the Vatican for Pope Julius and the pope had Michelangelo go and look at a sculpture that had just been found and unearthed in a roman vineyard.

Michelangelo confirmed that this sculpture was the original Laocoon and his sons which had been praised in the writings of Pliny the Elder centuries before.

Based on the recommendation of Michelangelo, Pope Julius purchased the statue and placed it on display in the Vatican.

Since that time, different popes have added art to the museums and have had to add new wings to accommodate it all.

A tour through the Vatican Museums is like taking an art bath. You see it, breathe it and take it in through your pores.

Like a perfect bath, it refreshes you and gives you new life. 

Make sure you avoid the lines and headaches by booking yourself a tour. I like Through Eternity Tours in Rome because their tour guides are well trained, personable, entertaining and professional.

Book months in advance because they fill up, especially in Summer.

The museum contains paintings by Caravaggio, Leonardo Da Vinci, Raphael and, the entire Sistine Chapel ceiling painted by Michelangelo between 1477 and 1480.

The museum tour includes a visit to St. Peter’s Basilica which contains the amazingly beautiful Pieta sculpture, sculpted by Michelangelo from white Carrera marble when he was only 24 years old.

Michelangelo was such a prolific artist and you will see many of his pieces on this tour. You will see why he is still the most beloved artist ever born and so cherished by Italians.

Cafe in Rome's Jewish Quarter Super Savvy Travelers
Cafe in Rome’s Jewish Quarter

2) Café

Or Café Macchiato or Café Latte, or Cappuccino.

When ordering coffee in Rome, understand that if you order coffee (or café) you will get a tiny cup filled with fiercely strong and biting espresso.

The Italians don’t fool around with their coffee. It is a source of pride.

If this is too much for you, you can order a café latte.  Don’t confuse a cafe latte at Starbucks with a cafe latte in Rome.

Both cafe latte and capuccino are perfectly blended combinations of milk, coffee and in cappuccino, chocolate. 

Don’t order a “latte” as we do here in the states or you will get a glass of milk.

Having heard that ordering coffee with milk in it after lunch was taboo all over Italy, I put this to the test in Cremona one afternoon.

My friends and I  entered a small café and a tiny Asian lady attended us.

My friends ordered their café and I looked at her and asked for a café latte. Her perfectly crafted eyebrows shot up into her hairline in surprise.

She covered it well and brought me my café latte but I am sure I was forever branded a tourist in that shop.

A café macchiato in Italy is espresso with a small amount of milk in it but still  strong. I have ordered this after lunch and the eyebrows rose minimally so I think it is ok.

If you like your coffee a little weaker, you can order a café lungo which is an espresso with a small amount of water in it.

The Italians, recognizing that Americans drink our coffee differently, have created a café Americano which is espresso with more water.

The coffee in Italy is, to my mind, the best in the world. Great care is taken to make it perfect and bar staffs are well trained.

Even the ground coffee you purchase in the supermarket is top notch even though it is inexpensive.

Order a cafe,  dump a packet of sugar in it and stir. You are rewarded with a couple mouthfuls of the sweetest, bitterest, most fragrant and coffee-est sip you can imagine.

You digest your food better and you are wide awake for several hours. 

Via Veneto, Rome, Italy
Via Veneto, Rome, Italy

3) Shopping

Rome has several fine shopping districts including the Via Veneto, which is a street dedicated to shopping and outdoor cafes.

It is a beautiful tree lined street and an afternoon spent in a sidewalk cafe watching the beautifully dressed Italian businessmen and women go by is a treat.

Italy is well known for fine Italian leather goods. Italian leather crafting goes back centuries. 

The Via Veneto has many fine leather emporiums however I have found that going a few streets over can save you money.

Aside from the shopping that you would normally expect from a large city, Roman streets are a riot of colorful outdoor markets.

Rome Outdoor Market
Rome Outdoor Market

Every day you can purchase fresh produce and other delectables at the Campo De Fiori  (literally, The Flower Market). This market has been going strong since medieval times.

Chicken, gravy and potatoes in Rome
Chicken, gravy and potatoes in Rome
Cornetto with Friends
Cornetto with Friends

 4) The Food!

The Italians have raised cooking to a fine art form and almost every restaurant I tried has been amazing! A similar meal here in California would be ruinously expensive.

I never go hungry in Rome. Even when I have just eaten I am eagerly looking forward to my next meal. 

Even those with dietary restrictions can relax as vegetarian cuisine is always available and I had no trouble finding gluten free meals that were unbelievable. 

Gluten Free Pizza in Rome
Gluten Free Pizza in Rome

Only once have I had a bad meal in Italy and that is when Pete and I unadvisedly ducked into a restaurant right next to Termini Station, the main train station in Rome.

Pete’s pizza was hard and burnt and my Roman artichokes hung their heads limply as if they had a severe case of erectile dysfunction.

It was sad.

Whenever possible, stay away from any eating establishment close to the train stations, the monuments or any of the touristy areas.

If you find yourself in a touristy area and you are hungry, walk a few streets away from the attraction and you will likely find a great place.

In my experience, you are not taking much of a chance as most restaurants are operated by people who have pride in what they serve you. I can guarantee you that when in Rome you will eat well if you look for restaurants not geared for tourists. 

Roman Ruins
Roman Ruins

5) The history!

Rome was the seat of the entire Roman empire which encompassed all of Europe, a big chunk of the Middle East and the United Kingdom and then some. It was HUGE and Rome was the center of it all.

Everywhere you look in Rome are ancient ruins dating from different times and civilizations in the past.

Sweeping your eyes from one side to another at any raised point in Rome presents a dizzying array of structures each with its own history, people and civilization.

Any of these magnificent structures generally has a tour associated with it. You can learn so much history here in a few days. And the history itself is standing right in front of you.

Italian Roman super savvy travelers
Wonderful Romans

6) Lastly and bestly, The Italians!

I know I promised you five great reasons but I am including my favorite one as a bonus reason.

The Italians I have met in my travels have been the most amazingly wonderful people. 

But what would we expect from the descendants of the greatest ancient empire in the world?

Go and visit them. Visit their cities and revel in their art. There is a reason that the great artists wound up in Italy. And Rome is where it all begins.

Start planning your trip to Rome.  Contact us. We have some of the most radical travel pros standing by and we can craft a perfect vacation for you. 

The Stadium of Domitian

Stairs at Stadium of Domitian

No trip to Rome is complete without a visit to the Piazza Navona, one of the largest public spaces in Rome and a favorite gathering-place for visitors and local Romans alike.

Piazza Navona

It is the home of several famous fountains including (my favorite) Bernini’s Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi, or Fountain of the Four Rivers, built between 1647 and 1651. The fountain glorifies the four major rivers of the Old World – The Nile, Ganges, Danube, and Rio Plata.

Fontana Dei Quattro Fiumi

This particular fountain is featured in Dan Brown’s 2000 thriller Angels and Demons, where it is highlighted as the fourth Altar of Science.

But to me, the most fascinating part of Piazza Navona is what cannot be readily seen, unless you know exactly where to look. Hidden below the surface of the piazza are the remains of an enormous stadium having a seating capacity of 30,000 spectators. It was even larger in area than the Colosseum!

In 86 AD (right after Emperor Titus completed the Colosseum in 80 AD), Emperor Domitian built a new stadium to provide a venue for competitive athletics.  It was patterned after similar Greek stadiums and used brick and concrete for the first time in its construction.

The stadium was built in the area shown under the red circled “1” on this map of ancient Rome:

Map of Ancient Rome

The ancient Romans went to the Stadium to watch the agones (games) when it was known as the Circus Agonalis (competition arena). This name was gradually corrupted into in avone, then to navone, and eventually to navona, the current name of the piazza.

The Stadium was eventually abandoned in the 4th century.  In 1477 Pope Sixtus IV relocated the city market to the stadium area and built over the seating area of the old stadium, keeping its original shape and transforming the arena into the present-day Piazza Navona.

Site of the Stadium of Domitian
Site of the Stadium of Domitian

You can still see the remains of one of the main entrances of the Stadium of Domitian at the northwestern end of Piazza Navona. Discreetly tucked away behind a building is an archway of the Stadium set back below street level:

Entrance to Domitian's Stadium (Google Street View)
Entrance to Domitian’s Stadium (Google Street View)

It turns out this is part of a newly-excavated area that you can now visit.  In 2014 the restoration of the archaeological area of the Stadium—now a Unesco World Heritage site— finally opened to the public. The entrance to the associated museum is just past this archway. Here you can descend below street level  and walk amongst the remains of the great Stadium built in 86 AD.

Stairs at Stadium of Domitian Stadium of Domitian Underground

You can even see stamps from the original builders on the masonry!

Masonry Stamp at Stadium of Domitian

The museum has much information on the history of the stadium and has some models of its original design.

Stadium of Domitian Placard

Stadium of Domitian Scale Model

You really get a sense of the layers of Rome as you look back up at the present street level from the Stadium:

Stadium of Domitian Entrance

You can also see a diagram of historical ground surface levels showing the surface of the stadium about 3.5 meters below the current level of the cobblestone pavement of Piazza Navona:

Strata at Stadium of Domitian

Be sure to visit the Stadio di Domiziano Museum the next time you’re in Rome!

Stadio Di Domiziao, Piazza Navona
Via di Tor Sanguigna, 3
06.45686100
stadiodomiziano.com

Tickets: 8 Euro, 6 Euro for ages 12-18, free for under 12 or over 65

Ancient Greek Cities in Southern Italy – Part II

Tavole Palatine Columns

One of the things I really enjoy about Italy is that it is like an open-air museum,  with new things to continually discover about the origins of our Western civilization. Southern Italy is really interesting from this standpoint since it was extensively colonized by Greek settlers starting around the 8th century BC (see my previous blog post). Chris and I saw even more evidence of this on our way back to our village in Calabria from a visit to Matera last summer. The route back from Matera suggested by Google Maps ended up taking us along the Ionian Sea for a short distance:

Route from Matera to Santa Domenica Talao

Taking a closer look at that route, I noticed an archaeological site marked on the map called “Tavole Palatine” near the city of Metaponto, right along our route:

Metaponto Map

It turns out that the Tavole Palatine (or Palatine tables or hills) are the ruins of a sixth-century BC Greek temple dedicated to the goddess Hera, built on the site of the ancient Greek colony of Metapontum (now known as Metaponto). This intrigued me so we decided to check it out on our drive back from Matera.

We quickly found the entrance to the site, just off the E90 highway.

Tavole Palatine Site Entrance

Chris at the Tavole Palatine Site Entrance
Chris at the Tavole Palatine Site Entrance

The ruins themselves are set back towards the back of the site. You can see fifteen columns of the temple now, but apparently there were originally thirty-two columns making up the original temple. The columns are made of a local limestone called mazzarro.

Tavole Palatine Columns

 

Originally the temple had a tiled roof with colorful decorations. Many remains of terracotta decorations and ceramics were found at the site and were originally kept at the Antiquarium there, but apparently they have all been moved to the Metaponto National Archaeological Museum (which unfortunately we didn’t get a chance to visit).

Antiquarium di Metaponto

Reading up more about the city of Metaponto,  I learned it had become very wealthy as an exporter of grains and corn when it was a Greek colony. I discovered that the philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras lived there after leaving Crotone, due to the city’s ongoing skirmishes with its neighboring city of Sybaris or possibly because of being expelled from there along with the followers of his Pythagorean school.

Much later, the slave-rebel Spartacus sacked the town and spent the winter of 73-72 BC there training his army, and from there he went on to fight and defeat many Roman armies for the next two years.

Ancient Greek sites like the Tavole Palatine and Metaponto are only a few of the treasures of Southern Italy that await your visit!  Let me know if have any questions about the area or need any tips on what to see in Southern Italy.

Ancient Greek Cities in Southern Italy

Temple of Neptune

Sunshine, the sea, astonishing natural beauty, unbelievably good pasta, pizza, and wine, and friendly, warm people! These are the reasons my wife Chris and I bought an apartment in Santa Domenica Talao five years ago, in a 400-year old hilltop village in Southern Italy. We also knew the area had a deep rich history,  but little did we know we would stumble upon a 2,500-year-old ancient Greek village literally in our own backyard! But more on that later ….

Our village is in the coastal area of Southern Italy known as the Magna Graecia (literally “Great Greece” in Latin). Greek settlers extensively colonized this area starting around the 8th century BC, who brought with them their dialects of the Ancient Greek language, their religious rites, their traditions of the independent city-state, and most importantly, a variety of the Greek alphabet which evolved into the Latin alphabet.

Magna Graecia Map
Magna Graecia Map

Unquestionably, the highlight of the Magna Grecia is the ancient city of Paestum, about an hour and a half away by train from Santa Domenica Talao, and which we visited the day before we purchased our apartment in April of 2011. Paestum was founded around 600 BC, and it has the best-preserved ruins of Greek temples anywhere outside of Greece.

There are three large temples still remaining, all amazingly well-preserved:

Temple of Athena
Temple of Athena
Temple of Neptune
Temple of Neptune
The Basilica/Temple of Hera
The Basilica/Temple of Hera

After its foundation under the name Poseidonia, the city was conquered by the local Lucanians (who named it Paistos) and then the Romans who again renamed it to Pesto or Paestum. Alongside the original Greek temples, you can now see the remains of Roman roads and houses.

Roman Floor and Foundations
Roman Floor and Foundations
Roman Road
Chris on a Roman road in Paestum

So fast-forward to June of 2016, when I was driving through the village of Marcellina, about 20 min. away from our village, on my way to look for furniture for our apartment. Just outside of Marcellina I noticed a fenced-in area alongside the road with a placard stating “Parco Archeologico di Laos”:

Parco Archeologico di Laos
Parco Archeologico di Laos

Signs on the fence confirmed that this was the site of the ancient Greek city of Laos, founded around 500 B.C.!

Placard at Parco Archaeologico di Laos
Placard at Parco Archaeologico di Laos

Even though a sign stated the park was supposed to be open, the gate was locked. Peering through through the fence I saw what appeared to be foundations of several houses:

Ancient Greek House Foundations
Ancient Greek House Foundations

A few days later, Chris and I drove past the park and noticed that this time the gate was open and there appeared to be a tour group inside. We quickly stopped and went in to look around and saw that the area encompassed a few acres of mostly remains of stone foundations of houses. Several signs described these areas in quite a bit of detail and even described a house (“The Mint House”) that was used to mint coins!

The Mint House
The Mint House

I was amazed to see that this technologically advanced city that even had terracotta sewer pipes!

Sewer Pipe
Sewer Pipe

I had no idea that this ancient city was literally in my own backyard!  I now understand the origin of the name of the Lao River which runs though the large plain above which our village sits:

Lao River Valley
Lao River Valley

Ancient Greek cities like Paestum and Laos are only a few of the treasures of Southern Italy that await your visit!  Let me know if have any questions about the area or need any tips on what to see in Southern Italy.

Leaving Home; Why So Many Italians Left Italy

Leaving Home

A couple of years ago Chris and I were walking through our hilltop village of Santa Domenica Talao in Calabria.

Across from our favorite market we saw a group of students and adults crowded around the bottom of a set of stairs leading up to an apartment.

At the top of the stairs was a group of students dressed in early 20th-century outfits.

The students appeared to be rehearsing a play showing the father of a family with packed suitcases getting ready to leave his village. He was probably headed for the United States.

America was the main destination for Italians leaving Italy from the late 19th century until the 1930’s.

This must have been a very familiar scene to many Italians in Italy between 1876 and 1915 when 14 million Italians left their homes seeking a better life.

Between 1876 and 1930, five million Italians immigrated to the United States (shown in dark green in the graph below). Most were coming from the southern regions including Calabria.

These people left because of poverty, political hardship, and the desire to earn enough money abroad to return home and buy land.

Most Calabrians at that time farmed for a living, and they lacked modern technology to farm efficiently.

Moreover, landlords charged high rents and provided low pay and harsh living conditions for the farmers.

After the reunification of Italy in 1861, repressive measures by the government through WWII caused more Italians to leave.

Many people of Italian heritage are now returning to Italy to rediscover their own roots and also to buy properties to renovate.

In many cases, they return to small villages such as Santa Domenica Talao.

Chris and I don’t have Italian roots that we know of (although we haven’t done a genealogy search yet!). But we bought our own property in Santa Domenica Talao.

We fell in love with its natural beauty and its warm and friendly residents.

Renovating an apartment in Santa Domenica Talao

Calabria is a hidden treasure waiting to be discovered. The region is sprinkled with charming little hilltop towns and seaside fishing villages, each one having its own character and personality.

The landscape is breathtaking, the people are wonderful and the food is, well, Calabrian food is legendary.

Let us know if you are interested in learning more about the wonders of Calabria!

For a lighthearted look at Santa Domenica Talao, check out this article.